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Egyptian exchange student makes a mark in Ketchikan

Posted: June 16, 2013 - 12:12am

KETCHIKAN — Mohab Mohamed Youssief Farran was a fixture of Ketchikan soccer and a graduating senior in the 2013 class — an unusual accomplishment for foreign exchange students, who often return to their home country to earn their diplomas.

Farran, 17, came to Ketchikan from Cairo, Egypt, through the American Field Service’s student exchange program. He was encouraged to travel abroad by his cousin, who was an exchange student in the Midwest. Farran was one of 50 selected from the 5,000 Egyptian students who applied for a scholarship to travel with AFS.

As part of the application, Farran chose two preferred places — Alaska and Hawaii.

“I was just trying to go far away from traffic and buildings and people,” he said.

And he succeeded, leaving a capital city of with a population of nearly 11 million for the First City’s 8,500. Steven and Ruth Dulin were his host family.

“It’s very enriching for a little, isolated community like this to have people come from different countries,” said Steven Dulin, a local AFS coordinator, adding that most of the foreign students come from strong educational backgrounds. “They’re very good role models for the other kids in school.”

Dulin, who owns Ketchikan Apartments on Park Avenue, said a list of students is made available online with a short biography. Host families can browse students based on where they want to study. Dulin said he had an interest in Arabic language and culture and found Farran, who wanted to come to Alaska.

At an AFS meeting before he arrived in Alaska, Farran met the other 50 Egyptian exchange students in the United States. He maintains contact with them online, and said some are homesick, some are afraid of returning to Egypt in a time of political turmoil or don’t want to go back at all, and still others want to go home quickly.

Farran was a prominent member of the soccer team. Overseas, soccer — or football — is the dominant sport rather than American football or baseball. He said that American athletes have more stamina. They can “stay the whole two hours” of the game without getting tired, but Egyptian athletes have more skill with the game.

Farran also started an Arabic club earlier in the school year that lasted more than a semester.

“I was just teaching people to speak Arabic,” he said. “Some of them — they don’t speak Arabic, but they can read it.”

As the AFS prepared Farran for the trip to America, organizers emphasized one thing repeatedly: There would be vast cultural differences, some that might strike him as wrong.

He said he would be told at every meeting to understand the cultural differences. “It’s not right; it’s not wrong; it’s just different,” he said he was told. The oft-repeated message was that he should accept and understand the cultural differences that exist between Arabic and Western society.

As a Muslim student in a town with a very low Muslim population, one might expect there to be some awkwardness with others concerning his faith, but Farran said the only real difficulty he’s faced is knowing when to pray.

“You have to pray before the sun goes up and before the sun goes down,” he said, “and in Ketchikan, it’s not always easy to know when the sun goes up and when it goes down.”

Even so, Farran said he experienced some — understandable — culture shock when moving to Ketchikan.

“I had culture shock in the school,” he said. “I didn’t expect — when people talk to their teachers, they’re like friends. In Egypt, there’s kind of respect, or as we say, a red line. It’s kind of more formal.”

Those walking the halls of Ketchikan High School or Revilla Alternative School have likely heard teachers first and last names called by students, sans “Mr.” or “Ms.”

Farran said he had a similar surprise when listening to children speak to their parents while on a visit to New York City. He said he could argue with his family or his father, “but with respect. I can’t shout. I just have to respect that he’s giving me his opinion. He’s looking for something better for me.”

The family dynamic in Ketchikan was not so different from his home, he said.

“I find people respect their families more in Ketchikan or Alaska,” Farran said. “When I went to New York, it was totally different. I couldn’t believe it.”

While it wasn’t difficult to be the first Egyptian student to come through AFS to the First City, it was strange — but only at first.

“Everyone was like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “It was kind of weird, (but) I think even the other exchange students ... they can make friends easily. Ketchikan is a welcoming place.”

Farran’s family owns a clothing factory in Cairo. He’s one of six children — three girls and three boys — and the second-oldest boy.

He’s been accepted to The American University in Cairo and The German University in Cairo, and said he prefers the American university, where he would like to study business and work at his family’s factory. Both private institutions are the only schools from their respective countries in Egypt.

Farran said he talked with his family every week when he arrived last year, but because of sports travel and school work, communication thinned to once or twice every three weeks. He would occasionally ask about the political upheaval in Egypt.

“My family doesn’t want to talk with me about it,” he said. “Every time I try to talk about it, they tell me, ‘You don’t have to think about anything going on now, but when you come back, yeah.’”

Farran is returning to Egypt this summer after a year of settling well into the school and the community, evidenced by the rousing applause and cheers he elicited when his name was announced during the May 26 graduation.

In an interview with the Daily News at the end of this year’s soccer season, Farran’s teammate Conner Pope said he’d remember his foreign friend.

“Honestly, I think I’ll remember Mohab,” Pope said. “It was such a surprise to have him, but it’s been like he’s grown up with us forever. We grew up with all those guys who graduated last year, but it’s like we found someone else.”

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